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OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau says he hopes "in the coming weeks" to announce loosened travel restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border, though that will depend on the trajectory of Covid-19.
The prime minister offered the broad timetable Tuesday as he faces heat for renewing an arrangement that will keep pandemic measures in place at the frontier until at least July 21.
“Obviously, there’s no guarantee," Trudeau said in French during a press conference in front of his home, where he’s under quarantine following his overseas trip to the G-7 and NATO summits. "We will attentively monitor, but for me the gradual reopening will take place on timelines of several weeks — not several months.”
Trudeau's caution comes amid growing domestic and global concern about Covid-19's Delta variant, and at a time when Canada's own rate of fully vaccinated individuals only just moved above 20 percent.
Last week, President Joe Biden warned Covid-19 cases will rise in some regions with lower vaccination rates. Biden also said the highly contagious Delta will leave those without their vaccine shots more at risk.
The backdrop: On Monday, Canada announced the first phase of its plan to peel back border restrictions. The steps followed an agreement from both countries to keep crossings closed to nonessential travel until at least July 21.
But so far the lighter rules will only apply to fully vaccinated citizens, residents and other individuals who already have a right to enter to Canada — leaving nonessential travelers, including Americans, on the outside.
Despite many questions, the Trudeau government has shared no dates and very few concrete metrics for when it will start opening Canada’s door to foreign travelers.
Ottawa did say this week that any update will require the full vaccination of at least 75 percent of Canada's population.
Trudeau said Tuesday that more than 75 percent of eligible Canadians had one shot of a Covid vaccine and more than 21 percent were fully vaccinated.
“The fact that so many people are getting vaccinated in Canada is very, very good news,” he said in French before switching to English. “I understand the impatience people have to get traveling again, but keeping Canadians safe has been, and will continue to be, our No. 1 priority.”
U.S. frustrations: As vaccination rates rise in both countries, Trudeau and Biden have been under pressure to start removing public-health measures put in place at the border in March 2020.
The loudest calls for a reopening have come from lawmakers, business leaders, property owners with land on the other side of the border and families separated from relatives for more than a year. The central argument of those who want the border measures lifted is that fully vaccinated travelers should be free to cross.
Trudeau’s arguments: The prime minister reiterated Tuesday that being fully vaccinated protects people from the worst impacts of the virus, but does not necessarily prevent the person from transmitting Covid-19 to someone else.
The government has said beyond vaccination coverage, any decisions on reopening the border will also have to consider case counts, hospitalization rates, local outbreaks, variants and the situation elsewhere in the world.
Trudeau stressed that Canada is trying to avoid having to close down again. “Nobody wants to see new restrictions brought in in the summer because the volumes were too high, because we were a little too rushed,” he said. “So, every step of the way we’re going to be careful and gradual about things.”
A New York Times tracker lists state populations with the percentage of people who are fully vaccinated. Looking at border states as of Monday, Maine was at 70 percent, New Hampshire 65, Vermont 75, New York 63, Pennsylvania 59, Ohio 54, Michigan 57, North Dakota 49, Montana 51, Idaho 47, Washington 65 and Alaska 53.
The reaction: Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), one of the most vocal lawmakers pushing for the removal of the border measures, told POLITICO on Tuesday that he was encouraged by Trudeau’s signal that further announcements about the restrictions could be on the way.
"It’s much more than has been given previously because the announcement on Friday was really an announcement about nothing,” Higgins said, referring to news that Canada was extending the restrictions another month without providing specifics on a timeline or thresholds.
“The prime minister probably got some push back consistent with what we’ve been saying and others … Everybody has been saying, ‘Hey, look, we need more — we need more from you about what it is we’re going to be able to do.’ Look, that represents an opening.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a statement Monday calling it “mindboggling” that New Yorkers were free to travel to Europe, but those who have been fully vaccinated still can’t even drive a few miles north to Canada to their businesses, stores, families and properties.
But Dr. David Fisman, professor of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, told POLITICO this week that Canada’s cautious approach to the border is “very appropriate" because the variants have moved the goal posts.
“Both the higher reproduction number and the decreased efficacy of single dose vaccine against Delta have likely pushed them to make these changes,” he said.
What’s next: Since the border measures were first imposed, the countries have been renewing a bilateral, month-to-month arrangement. The next agreement expires July 21.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters Tuesday, at a separate press conference, that Ottawa understands the consequences of the border measures for business sectors like tourism.
LeBlanc then brought up the July 21 expiry date.
“Obviously, as we approach that date, in three or four weeks, we'll be looking to see what is … a prudent approach to have in place after that,” he said.